IN the history of ancient India, the figure of Asoka (Ashoka) stands out like some great Himalayan peak, clear against the sky, resplendent in the sun, while the lower and nearer ranges are hidden by the clouds.
As an historical figure, his character has to-day a two-fold interest for us: political and religious. He was the most illustrious member of a great and powerful dynasty, which has left indelible traces of its achievements on Indian history, and he was the leader in his own day of a spiritual movement which, spreading far with profound effect, marked an epoch in the history of the Eastern world, and has exercised a religious influence upon a third of the human race.
It was inevitable that there should be a large admixture of legend and myth in the mass of tradition that has gathered round the name of Ashoka: the same is true of all the heroes of antiquity who have impressed themselves on the popular imagination; of the English King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, of the good King Alfred, and of St. Louis, the saintly King of France; but a remarkable fact about Ashoka is that we have at our disposal, clearly distinguishable from the almost unlimited amount of myth, a limited but still very considerable amount of authentic and indisputable evidence of a most interesting kind, by which he is brought nearer to us and made more real than any other monarch of ancient days in India. Recently this evidence has been accumulating. The researches of scholars and the excavations of the Archaeological Survey have combined to place at our disposal fresh sources of information, in some cases confirming what had previously been conjecture, and in others adding to the sum of ascertained knowledge new facts of very great value.
To understand the place that Ashoka held in Indian history and the work he did, it is necessary to consider briefly what may be termed his natural and also his spiritual pedigree, to trace, that is to say, the story of the Maurya dynasty and also the origin of Buddhism.
While no historian of India can ignore Ashoka and while every student of religion must take Buddha into account. Historians are, however been righteous in placing Ashoka in high esteem. THE invasion of North-West India by Alexander the Great, which is the first definite landmark in Indian history and marks the beginning of intercourse between India and the West, may be taken as the starting point in the secular history of Ashoka. In May, 327 B.C., Alexander crossed the Hindu Kush with his army, and after spending about ten months fighting the mountain tribes, he entered India in February, 326.
India was at that time divided into a large number of independent States, some large and some small, but none of them owing allegiance to any other as a paramount power. The task of the invader was made easier, as it was many years later in the days of Dupleix and Clive, through his aid being invoked on behalf of some of the warring kings and against the others. In May, 326 B.C., Alexander arrived at the Jhelum river, the Hydaspes of the Greek historians, and, stealing a march across it, fought a hard but successful battle against Porus, the Lion of the Punjab of that time. The Chenab, or Akesines, in full flood, was reached in July and crossed with difficulty. Then they came to the Ravi, or Hydraotes, which presented less difficulty. Three days' march further on was the Beas or Hyphasis River, which proved to be the limit of the Macedonian invasion. Owing to discontent among his troops, Alexander, to his great mortification, was compelled to abandon his design of conquering the rich territory that lay beyond.
Not even the promise of all the wealth of Asia as their booty could induce the wearied soldiers to advance further. Retreating to the Jhelum, Alexander there built two thousand boats from the forest timber, and commenced his combined march and voyage to the sea. Eight thousand men were in the boats, and one hundred and twenty thousand marched along the banks. Before turning his face towards the south, Alexander held a darbar of his officers and representatives of the local States. He had conquered in all seven distinct kingdoms, and Porus was placed at their head as the Viceroy of Alexander. The voyage lasted ten months, and the sea was reached early in September, 325 B.C. Alexander then started to march overland to Persia, and lost most of his spoils of war in the desert of Gedrosia (Makran). Part of the army was sent by sea to the Persian Gulf. Had Alexander lived, it is possible that he would have again invaded India with more adequate preparations for its conquest, and what the effect might have been on the course of Indian history is a matter of speculation; but his death at Babylon, in June, 323 B.C., a year after his return from India, at the early age of thirty-two, was followed by the break-up of his empire. The distant Indian provinces were made over to the officers and princes to whom they had been entrusted by Alexander. In several of them the former Indian rulers were allowed to resume their thrones, subject to a merely nominal recognition of the Macedonian as the sovereign power.
The premier State in the interior of India at that period was Magadha or Bihar, located in Patna and the neighbouring districts, and ruled by what was known as the Nanda line of kings. The ruler at the time of Alexander's invasion of the Punjab was said to be the son of a barber who had become a paramour of the late queen and who, with her help, murdered the king. A youth, Chandragupta by name, was believed to be an illegitimate scion of this royal house. He seems in some way to have incurred the displeasure of the king and was compelled to flee for safety to the north-west, the scene of the Macedonian triumphs. We have the authority of Plutarch for the statement that Chandragupta visited the invaders' camp and actually met Alexander.
The Nanda king of Magadha, Mahapadma by name, was unpopular, and the prospect of making an easy conquest of his kingdom was one of the reasons why Alexander was anxious to pursue his march to the further east. It was reserved for Chandragupta, however, to expel the barber's son and to occupy his throne. With the help of a clever Brahman, Chanakya by name, as his minister, he challenged Mahapadma Nanda to battle, defeated him, and then murdered him and also his entire family. In his revolt Chandragupta had the assistance of one of the warrior chieftains whom he had met in the north, and who at first shared his throne. But he was soon disposed of, and Chandragupta reigned alone. His rule is believed to date from about the year 321 B.C., two years after the death of Alexander. He reigned for twenty-four years, from Pataliputra, the modern Patna, as his capital. Chandragupta, known to the Greeks as Sandrokottos, was not content with the kingdom he had won, but took occasion by the hand to extend it to the north-west over the scene of Alexander's exploits. From the first the Indian provinces had been restive under Macedonian rule. Before Alexander had returned to Persia he heard that his Satrap, Philippus, had been murdered, and he was unable to do more than make temporary arrangements for a successor. With the help of the fierce fighting tribes of the north-west as his mercenaries, Chandragupta expelled the leaderless Macedonians and extended his own rule over north India and probably as far south as the Narbada river.
Holding sway from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea, from the Himalayas to Ujjain, he became, in fact, the first Emperor of India. It was not without a struggle, however, that Macedonia gave up her Eastern conquests. On the partition of territory that followed Alexander's death, Seleukos, surnamed Nikator, the Conqueror, established himself as Satrap of Babylon in 321 B.C. He had gained this position simply by the power of the sword, but in 315 he was expelled from Babylon by Antigonos, a successful rival, and sought safety in Egypt. Returning thence in 312 B.C., he recovered Babylon and set out upon a course of conquest which at first promised to revive the glories of Alexander. Nominally King of Syria, he was before long ruler of all western Asia, and in 305 B.C. he crossed the Indus. He found in Chandragupta a very formidable opponent. It is said that the King of Magadha was able to put 600,000 men on the field, and at some plac unknown one of the decisive battles of the world was fought, which rolled back for centuries the tide of Western conquest in India. Seleukos, Nikator no longer, was defeated and withdrew his forces from India.
It was not, however, an ignominious flight, for terms of peace had first been drawn up between the two monarchs. The terms were certainly very much in favour of Chandragupta, who, by reason of the territory ceded to him by Seleukos, still further extended his kingdom to the Hindu Kush. The actual satrapies that were surrendered by Seleukos were those of Aria, Arachosia, Gedrosia, and Paropanisadae, and they may be said to corres- pond roughly with the present North-West Frontier Province of India, with Baluchistan and the greater part of Afghanistan. The Maurya Empire, thus enlarged, almost equalled in extent the British Empire of India. It was less extensive in the extreme south of the peninsula and in the Far East and north-east, including neither Madras, nor Assam nor Burma; but it was much more extensive in the north-west. In exchange for territory which was sufficient in itself to make an empire, Seleukos received the paltry gift of five hundred elephants, and a matrimonial alliance was established between his house and that of Chandragupta. Seleukos accepted his defeat as final, and, in token of his recognition of Chandragupta as a lawful sovereign, sent Megasthenes, some time not much later than 305 B.C., to be his ambassador at Pataliputra. Megasthenes became the father of Indian history.
He had had some previous experience of the East, for he was by profession a soldier and he had served in the satrapy of Arachosia. During his residence at the court of Chandragupta he kept his ears and eyes open, and made a careful record of what he saw and heard, little dreaming how many future generations would be indebted to him for the information he bequeathed to them. What he wrote has, in its original form, been lost, but much of it has been preserved in the works of Greek and Latin writers Arrian, Q. Curtius, Plutarch, Justin, Pliny, Strabo, Appian, and Athenaios. Some years ago the late Mr. McCrindle, who was principal of Patna College, performed a very useful work in collecting all the passages from these writers that could be traced to Megasthenes and embodying them in books descriptive of ancient India and of its invasion by Alexander. Until quite recently, Megasthenes stood almost alone as an authority on the Maurya Empire, but the excavations that are being carried on at the site of Pataliputra are confirming in a remarkable way the assertions of the old Greek writer. Much of what he tells us of the strength and splendour of the empire might seem incredible, if it were not verified by actual demonstration. A famous ancient work on Arthasastra, politics, ascribed to Chanakya, which was long lost, has recently been recovered.
Unfortunately, the date of the work is uncertain; so that it is impossible to take it as certainly representing the statecraft of Chandragupta's days. Megasthenes describes Pataliputra, which stood on the northern bank of the Son river, near its junction with the Ganges as revealed by the excavators, it was situated just outside the southern municipal boundaries of the modern city of Patna as a magnificent city, well fortified, and in every way worthy to be the capital of a great kingdom. He estimated that the royal camp contained 400,000 persons, and he tells us that Chandragupta's standing army included 600,000 infantry, 300,000 cavalry, 9,000 elephants and a multitude of chariots. For purposes of comparison the reader may be reminded that the entire British army in India at the present day consists in all of about 232,000 troops, of which about two-thirds are Indian and one-third European. This great army was not the creation of Chandragupta; he inherited it, or won it by conquest, from the Nanda monarch whom he displaced. Plutarch's phrase is that with this huge and well equipped army Chandragupta "overran and subdued the whole of India," and we have seen that there is reason to believe that this is true, if we except from "India" the extreme south and the far east. There is a tradition that before the end of his life Chandragupta abdicated the throne and adopted the life of a Jain ascetic, but its historicity is doubtful.
He was succeeded by his son, Bindusara, otherwise known as Amitraghatta, the Slayer of Foes, who reigned for twenty-five or twenty-eight years. Dwarfed between his distinguished father and his still more famous son, Bindusara fills a comparatively insignificant place in history, but it is to his credit that he not only kept intact the great empire his sire had won, and bequeathed it unimpaired to his successor, but is said to have actually enlarged it towards the south. He maintained friendly relations with the King of Syria, who sent Deimachos to take the place which Megasthenes had held in the days of Chandragupta. When Seleukos was murdered in 280 B.C., he was succeeded by his son, Antiochos Soter, who continued to correspond with Bindusara. There is a story that Bindusara asked Antiochos to send him some figs and raisin wine, and added that he would also be obliged if he would buy a professor for him and send him to Pataliputra. Antiochos replied that he had much pleasure in sending the figs and raisin wine, but regretted that he could not comply with the last request, as it was not lawful for Greeks to sell a professor. Ptolemy Philadelphus, "who was at that time King of Egypt (285-247 B.C.), sent Dionysios on a mission to India, and it is possible that he also visited Pataliputra; it is impossible to say, however, whether his visit took place in the time of Bindusara or after his death. He, too, like Megasthenes, wrote an account of his experiences, which was still available to Pliny in the first century A.D. Still another Greek who visited India was an officer, Patrokles by name, who had served under Seleukos Antiochos. He made voyages to India and collected information about the people and country. In the year 272 or 273 B.C., Bindusara died, and was succeeded by his son Ashoka, the third and the greatest of the Maurya line of kings.
Listen about the story of Ashoka